Vic Bubas always said that his 1966 team was his best. It didn’t win as many games as his 1963 team and did not advance as far as his 1964 team. But those teams went into Duke’s first two Final Fours hale and hearty and just lost to better teams.
Not so with the 1966 team. At least the hale and hearty part.
Some background. This was the first Duke team with five starters who would go on to play in the NBA and/or ABA. Mike Lewis was the center, a 6-7, 230-pounder from the unlikely locale of Missoula, Montana. Lewis was a sophomore and that season became the first Duke player to lead the ACC in rebounds.
Senior Jack Marin and junior Bob Riedy started at forward. Bubas always maintained that the 6-6 Marin was the most versatile player he ever coached. Marin was a smooth-shooting lefty, a plus defender and ball-handler and a great college rebounder. He averaged 19 points and 10 rebounds in the two seasons he started at Duke. Riedy was 6-6, about 215, a tough interior scorer and rebounder.
Steve Vacendak and Bob Verga started at guard. Vacendak was a 6-1 senior, a great playmaker and defender and a double-digit scorer. Verga was a 6-1 junior, a spectacular long-range shooter, Duke’s leading scorer most of the season.
Duke did have one chink in its armor. Warren Chapman, a 6-8 sophomore, was the only reserve to score more than 76 points that season. This was a team that could ill afford injury or illness to a starter.
This team did do something no other Duke team had done. After winning two games against two-time defending national champions UCLA, Duke ascended to the top spot in the AP poll for the first time. Duke held that spot for eight weeks. Duke lost three regular-season games, by margins of two, four and one point (s).
Duke negotiated the ACC-Tournament minefield, barely overcoming a Dean Smith slowdown (21-20) in the semifinals and beating a good NC State team 71-66 in the title game.
Fifth-ranked St. Joseph’s (76-74) and Syracuse (91-81) fell in the east.
Verga scored 43 points in the two regional games.
Duke was joined by Kentucky, Texas Western and Utah in the Final Four, which was held at Cole Field House on the campus of the University of Maryland, a familiar site for Duke.
It was all set up beautifully for Duke.
Until it wasn’t.
Early in the week news began to circulate that Verga had been hospitalized for “an acute sore throat.” I’ve seen it described as the flu or as strep throat but it really doesn’t matter. Bob Verga was in no condition to play basketball.
Kentucky forward Larry Conley also was reported sick that same week.
Duke didn’t have a Plan B. Even the deepest team isn’t going to easily replace a second-team All-American averaging 19 points per game and as mentioned earlier, Duke wasn’t a particularly deep team.
The top reserve guard was sophomore Ron Wendelin. He was a good ball-handler. But he wasn’t a scorer and hadn’t played much. Even when he started in 1967 and 1968 Wendelin averaged a modest 3.9 and 4.4 points per game.
Given enough time Duke could have moved Vacendak off the ball and reinvented its potent offense. But they didn’t have time.
Verga gave it a go. In fact, it was reported that Verga would be at full speed by game time. But it was just a pipe-dream. He played only 18 minutes and scored only four points, all in the first half. Wendelin scored two points.
Conley played most of the game and scored 10 points, only 1.5 below his season average.
Still, Duke took the Wildcats to the wire.It was tied as late as 71-71 before Kentucky went on an 8-1 run. Marin had perhaps the best game of his career, given the circumstances. He hit 11-of-18 from the field, 7-of-10 from the line for 29 points and 7 rebounds.
Kentucky prevailed 83-79.
How many points was a healthy Bob Verga worth? Five?
I’ll take the over on that.
Another what if? The Final Four was held on Friday night and Saturday night in those days. Verga’s illness went away on Saturday and he scored 15 points in Duke’s 79-77 win over Utah in the consolation game.
Had the format been today’s Saturday-Monday format, maybe Verga would actually have been fully recovered for the Kentucky game.
Another sidebar. Marin scored 52 points in those two games to Verga’s 19 which enabled Marin to overtake Verga to become Duke’s leading scorer on the season.
Kentucky advanced to the title game, where they lost to Texas Western (now Texas El-Paso).
Would Duke with a healthy Verga actually have beaten Texas Western? Maybe. Or maybe not. Bubas always said Duke would have won it all that year had Verga been healthy. Who am I to argue with Vic Bubas?
Then again, Kentucky couldn’t so the logical suspicion is that Duke would have come up short.
The title game that did take place, the one that Duke barely missed, is the most famous college-basketball game ever played. Not because it was a great game. It was a good game. But not a classic. The two teams shot 41 percent and combined for 34 turnovers. It wasn’t decided at the buzzer. The Miners won 72-65. It wasn’t a break-out game for a transcendent talent. None of the players on either team was ever an NBA star, although Kentucky’s Pat Riley would become a great coach and GM.
It wasn’t even a huge upset, despite what you may have read elsewhere. Kentucky was ranked first in the AP poll, Duke second, Texas Western third. Kentucky was favored, of course. But compared to NC State-Houston, Villanova-Georgetown or Kansas-Oklahoma, the third-ranked team in the AP poll beating the top-ranked team qualifies as a mild upset at best.
Kentucky was an historically-elite program, to be sure. And fans on the east coast didn’t know much about Texas Western. But they didn’t come out of nowhere. They entered the 1966 title game at 28-1, the loss at Seattle. They defeated traditional heavyweights Cincinnati and fourth-ranked Kansas to get out of the Midwest region. The Cincinnati win was in overtime, the Kansas win in double overtime.
So, they were tough and tested. This wasn’t their first rodeo.
This game is famous for one reason. Texas Western started five black players, Kentucky started five white players. Texas Western played seven players that night, all black. Kentucky didn’t even have a black player. In fact, the entire SEC didn’t have a black player.
Teams with numerous outstanding black players had won NCAA titles before. Cincinnati started four black players on their 1962 NCAA title team and Loyola did likewise in 1963. In fact seven of the 10 starters in the 1963 Loyola-Cincinnati title game were African Americans.
So, why hasn’t anyone made a movie about that 1963 title game?
It’s the number five. People counted the number of black players on the court in those days. Northern schools integrated before southern schools and the cynical joke among many whites was that you could play two black players at home, three on the road, four if you were behind.
But they didn’t say you could play five.
There was a racist assumption that even the most-talented team of black players had to have at least one white player on the court to supposedly figure things out and keep things under control, as if black players couldn’t do that for themselves.
Texas Western was the first title team to start five black players. In fact Texas Western coach Don Haskins is believed to be the first coach at a predominantly white school to start five African Americans at any time.
Going against this spectacularly racist thinking was a big deal. Haskins and Texas Western are justifiably the heroes in this narrative.
But is there a villain? Does there need to be? Any account of this game quickly follows Texas Western’s“five black starters” with Kentucky’s “five white starters.”
The Texas Western-Kentucky game made the cover of Sports Illustrated the following week. A lengthy article made no mention of the racial composition of the two teams or any suggestion that this game changed the cultural landscape. The same with the New York Times article the day after the title game.
Maybe self-censorship. Maybe too obvious to deserve mentioning.
It would be enormously disingenuous to suggest that no one recognized the racial implications of that game at the time. Haskins reported that he received 40,000 pieces of hate mail in a year.
This where we get into the weeds. Type some variation of “was Adolph Rupp racist” into your search engine of choice and you’ll get lots of hits, some refuting the premise, some supporting it. I have no first-hand knowledge. You can make up your own mind.
But Kentucky was the only team in the 1966 SEC in a state that didn’t join the Confederacy. Rupp was the highest-profile coach in the country, Kentucky the highest-profile program. Their administration encouraged Rupp to recruit black players. But while border-state schools like Louisville, Western Kentucky, West Virginia and Maryland recruited black players, Rupp held back. Rupp could have led the way. He didn’t.
Was it more than that?
Over time people began to say the quiet things out loud. Even Rupp’s most sympathetic biographers noted that he never really let this loss go, feeding the Rupp-as-racist-narrative that got stronger as time passed, attitudes progressed and this one basketball game became known as the Brown v. Board of Education of College Basketball.
I’ll quote one from a large volume of criticism, a 1998 Sports Illustrated article that claimed “a few hours before tip-off, a visibly upset Miners coach Don Haskins told his players he’d just heard Rupp vow that ‘no five blacks are going to beat Kentucky.’”
The article went on to interview Harry Flournoy, a Texas Western forward who started the game before spraining an ankle.
“From that point on Kentucky had as much chance of winning that game as a snowball had of surviving in hell. Kentucky was playing for a commemorative wristwatch and the right to say they were national champions. We were out to prove that it didn’t matter what color a person’s skin was.”
Urban myth? Perhaps. But I can’t imagine Flournoy mis-remembering this sort of thing, even more than 30 years later.
It should be noted that the volumes of criticism directed at Rupp have not extended to any of his players.
Which brings us back to Duke.
Had Verga and Duke prevailed in the semifinals that would have brought up a title game between all-white Duke and all-black Texas Western.
Would Duke have been cast as the villains in this scenario?
Possibly. But there were some significant differences. Duke had its first black player, C.B. Claiborne. He was a walk-on on the freshman team. Claiborne was a walk-on, but he still was ahead of the entire SEC.
And Bubas certainly was better liked in the college-basketball community than the imperious Rupp, a dour 64-year-old man in a brown suit.
I don’t want to give anyone the wrong impression. Claiborne was a walk-on after all and Bubas didn’t sign his first recruited African American until Don Blackman, who enrolled in the fall of 1968. Duke continued to have its post-season banquet at a segregated country club even after Claiborne’s arrival and while his teammates may have had some idea of how difficult a time he had at Duke, the coaching staff clearly didn’t.
Duke certainly didn’t lead the charge into a new age. But they didn’t drag their feet as publicly as did Kentucky. Duke may have been staggering the right direction but they were headed in the right direction.
But most of all I can’t imagine Vic Bubas saying the things Rupp was reputed to have said and I can’t imagine anyone believing that he could have said such things.
Perhaps Duke dodged a bullet with Verga’s illness. But I suspect not. A Texas Western win over Duke probably leaves intact the good parts of the story without the corresponding villain. Rightly or wrongly, Adolph Rupp was the perfect foil for Don Haskins and his trail-blazing team. Vic Bubas was not.